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His Between the Yeshiva World and Modern Orthodoxy: The Life and Works of Rabbi Jehiel Jacob Weinberg, 1884-1966 and The Limits of Orthodox Theology: Maimonides’ Thirteen Principles Reappraised were both National Jewish Book Award finalists.
The Jewish Press: In your opinion, what would Rabbi Weinberg, author of the Seridei Eish and the subject of your first book, think of the Orthodox Jewish community today?
Shapiro: He’d think what a lot of gedolim would think from that generation. They would be very surprised that things they took for granted are now considered unacceptable – that the yeshiva world today in Israel, for example, sees something wrong with earning a living.
I think the frumkeit would surprise them. For example, the turn to glatt kosher as a standard, as well as the number of chumrot. This would surprise them only because part of traditional Judaism is reliance on the gedolim of the past and it’s very unusual for a tradition that regards itself as following the past to reject what previous standards were.
You write that Rabbi Weinberg didn’t support the Agudah. Why was that? First of all, there are two types of Agudah. There used to be such a thing as a German Agudah, Torah im Derech Eretz. That has been totally demolished. But fundamentally, if you think about the post-World War II Agudah, Rabbi Weinberg was a Zionist and they weren’t.
Also, he believed in autonomy. He couldn’t tolerate the use of the cherem and the lack of ability to think for yourself.
Rabbi Weinberg wrote, “For the members of Agudah, every unimportant rabbi who joins them is considered a great gaon.” Can you elaborate? Rabbi Weinberg wrote in his private letters that politics in Agudah circles is what makes you a gadol; it’s not how much Torah you have. They determine that Rav Soloveitchik is not a gadol because he’s not in their circle. Rav Elyashiv was never considered a gadol when he was with the [Israeli government] rabbanut.
You have written that at one point you wanted to write a biography of Rabbi Chaim Hirschenson (a posek and rav in Hoboken, N.J., in the early half of the 20th century). Why do you find him such an interesting character? Rabbi Hirschenson believed there has to be – they didn’t have this term then but it certainly is adequate – a Modern Orthodox approach to halacha. He believed in updating halacha, all within the halachic system.
For example, now it seems almost quaint, but in his day pretty much all the gedolim believed that women couldn’t vote and they all – basically all – believed that women couldn’t be elected. He argued against this.
He showed how the Torah is not opposed to democracy. He spoke about issues of biblical criticism, how to deal with that. His sefer, Malki Bakodesh, deals with all the issues of how to run a country in modern times according to Jewish law. He was the first one to put this on the table. He said we’re going to have a state one day and we’re going to need to run it according to Torah law. Can Torah law work in a modern state and what do we have to do to make it work?
Why did your book The Limits of Orthodox Theology (which demonstrates that great rabbis throughout the ages often disagreed with some of Rambam’s thirteen principles of faith) raise the ire of some in the Orthodox community? Because they’ve developed a conception that certain views are to be adopted, and you can’t depart from them. And this applies to views regarding secular studies, Zionism, all sorts of issues, and certainly with regard to what’s come to be regarded as ikkarei emunah [principles of faith]. Therefore, anything that shows that matters have not always been so clear, and that there were disputes about these things, is controversial.
In your writings and speeches, you reveal many little known facts such as: 1) Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch asked Rabbi Dovid Tzvi Hoffman to remove his hat (thus leaving him bareheaded) when visiting him at his school so that the non-Jewish teachers shouldn’t think him disrespectful; 2) The Akeidas Yitzchak (15th century Spanish scholar) maintained that non-Jews need not observe the seven Noachide laws; 3) Rabbi Tzvi Yehuda Kook called Tolstoy a “great man who is full of holiness”; and 4) Rabbi Israel Moshe Hazzan (Sephardi sage, 1808-1862) wrote that one should incorporate church tunes into the davening since they lead to love of God. Why are things like these so unknown? Because yeshivas today don’t teach Jewish philosophy or theology. They teach hashkafa and emunah, which is fine, but that’s more like indoctrination. And whereas people are very sophisticated when it comes to Talmud study and they’ll look at all the different shittos, when it comes to philosophical study of Judaism – its history, its ideas – they’re not sophisticated and they’re not interested.
This prevents us from being able to respond to ideological challenges. Just as we assume that someone who approaches halachic issues without having a firm grasp of responsa literature, Shas and poskim is not doing his job, the problem here is that many people who approach the non-halachic matters don’t really have any background. It’s a serious discipline, Jewish philosophy and theology – just as serious as halacha, but not taken so.
In one of your recent works you mention that you are writing an article discussing many laws found in the Shulchan Aruch that were not or are not kept by Jews. Can you elaborate? It’s just another misconception people have that the Shulchan Aruch is always the last word in halacha, when there’s plenty of things we do which are not in accordance with it.
According to the Shulchan Aruch, when you lend money to someone, you need to do it in front of witnesses. Despite that ruling, however, nowadays if you lend your friend 50 dollars, you don’t do it in front of witnesses. Already the acharonim want to know why we don’t follow the Shulchan Aruch.
There are loads of examples. Some halachos in the Shulchan Aruch didn’t become accepted because other poskim argued or there was a tradition predating the Shulchan Aruch; others, because they were too difficult to keep, and then later poskim came and found justifications.
I think this sounds more explosive than it is. Everyone who knows halacha knows that there’s plenty of stuff we don’t do according to the Shulchan Aruch; this is not controversial.
Going back to Rabbi Weinberg, you write that he initially supported Hitler when he came to power. Well, it’s a real mussar haskel [lesson] for today – how to relate to Arab leaders who say one thing to diplomats and another to their own people – because Hitler was stating his views on the Jews and there were Jews, Rabbi Weinberg among them, who thought that this was just for the masses, that it wasn’t to be taken seriously. They didn’t think anti-Semitism was central to Nazism. They thought the real threat was communism, and they figured that once Hitler came into power, he’d just be another right-wing dictator like Mussolini. Mussolini was not anti-Semitic. Rabbi Weinberg wrote that “perhaps we [the Jewish people] also bear some guilt” for anti-Semitism. What did he mean by that? Rabbi Weinberg raised the possibility that perhaps the way Jews treat non-Jews contributes to anti-Semitism. He no doubt had in mind things such as how the Jew treated the Polish peasant and wondered if this didn’t have some impact on how the Poles viewed the Jews. Many Orthodox Jews thought it was okay to be less than honest in their business dealing with non-Jews.
Rabbi Weinberg argued that we must formally declare that we hold like the Meiri [13th century French sage], that all the negative things in the Talmud against non-Jews were only stated with regard to the wicked pagans of old, but didn’t apply to non-Jews as a whole.
We must relate to non-Jews just like to Jews, being absolutely honest in all monetary matters and regard them as having dignity as creations of God.
In your writings, you cite and quote from a staggering array of sources. How do you dig them up? I am fortunate to have a job in which I am able to learn many hours every day. I was told not too long ago that I should give all this stuff up and learn Shas and poskim so that I would amount to something.
Do you find special meaning in teaching Judaism to Christian students in a Jesuit school (the University of Scranton)? Well, first, the people I work with are chassidei umos ha’olam. I will also tell you that the two volumes of Rabbi Weinberg I published in Hebrew were published with the assistance of the university, which might be the only two seforim in history ever published with money from a Catholic university.
This isn’t 50 years ago. I asked my students the first day of the Holocaust course, “Does anyone know the expression ‘Christ killer?’ “- and more than half of them never heard the expression, something their parents and grandparents all knew from birth.
There’ve been great changes in the Catholic Church and there’s a great respect for Judaism and for Jews; many Catholic thinkers see Jews as the older brothers of Catholics. I think it behooves us to acknowledge the real changes in the Church and try to contribute to make sure these changes continue and that we treat them with the respect that they’re treating us.
Do you think it advantageous that you, an Orthodox Jew, are teaching these students rather than a Conservative or Reform Jew? Christianity rejects Jewish law, so if you get a Reform rabbi up there whose attitude is also that the law isn’t important, they really don’t get an understanding of how Judaism differs. If you have someone who affirms the significance of Jewish law, they get a sense of what true Judaism is.
Many of these students come from small towns in Pennsylvania. They’ve never met a Jew before, they don’t know what a knish is. This is their first exposure and will last them a lifetime.
What will your next book be about? My next book is called Studies in Maimonides and His Interpreters. I discuss differences between the academic interpreters and the traditional interpreters. I show how they differ and also how the academic approach could benefit from many of the traditional insights.
And then, following that, I have a contract to do a book that will be called Changing the Immutable: How Orthodox Judaism Rewrites Its History. It’s about how uncomfortable ideas, which used to be acceptable, basically have been moved out of the tradition through censorship.
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